News and insights (March 2021): Politics of the Pandemic – The first time in a long time to evaluate if our politics works

By Sonia Khan, Account Director, UK Public Affairs

The last year has been unlike anything we’ve ever seen. A global pandemic has gripped the country with devastating consequences for millions of people and the government has had to react accordingly. Gone are the days where the weeks are measured in manifesto commitments, now they’re measured in vaccinations.   

First, we rely on the state more and expect more. The response to the pandemic has been state-led globally. While we can’t ignore the innovation and brilliance of many companies around the world in developing the vaccine, procuring PPE and keeping essential services running, the crux of this activity has been the government. We’ve all had to accept a bigger state into our lives and into our homes, we watched the news conferences diligently and have taken the steps needed to keep ourselves and our families safe. But in return, we expect the state to provide a safety net – for those with long-term ailments from the virus and for those whose livelihoods have been at risk.  

Gone are the days of a smaller state and smaller spending. The think tanks who’d usually make this argument strongly have had to concede that a bigger state is here to stay for the foreseeable future and that their approach must be to minimise this overreach.   

Of course, because of the speed of change during the pandemic decisions have had to be taken quickly and there has been limited scrutiny of government decisions, and while the Labour party’s noble constructive opposition approach has been effective in preventing distraction from the task at hand, it has felt like a one-party system.  What has been interesting has been how, even when the government has got things wrong, they have still led in the polls.  

I know we all treat polls with more caution these days after having been burnt in the past but they’re still a useful indicator of where public sentiment is currently. It might change when the inquiry into COVID-19 starts at some point next year but there’s clearly a lot of goodwill out there.  

However, for some there’s weariness and after a year in lockdown, another debate is emerging on our personal freedom. The recent clashes in Bristol against the police reflect that, and there is a growing core who feel the state has overreached and they won’t allow it any longer. With a live discussion on vaccine passports and whether we’ll need a vaccine to go back to ‘normal life’, how we use and store data will be a critical discussion as we emerge out of the pandemic. 

There’s little doubt that 2021 will be the year of change. This is the first time in a long time where we have time to evaluate if our politics works. Does it reflect the society we want? Is it effective in tackling the inequality we see? Are the government’s priorities reflective of our own?  

I’ve seen ideas gain traction this year that would have been rubbished within seconds in previous years, but the pandemic has changed our relationships with one another, and changed our values and perspectives. Now’s the time to take those learnings and embed them if we are to embody the change we want to see. 

This piece first appeared in Cicero/AMO’s March news and insights update – click here to access our full update.

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Sonia Khan

Account Director